Before & After: Cleaning Vintage Metal Hardware


Living in an old apartment building and populating my life mostly with vintage stuff that’s seen better days, it’s easy to become a bitter person. Resentful, even. Living this way means that I am in the constant company of ghosts of bad decisions past — of tenants and owners and of several landlords whose interests might have rested more on their bottom lines than on the preservation of their buildings.

Why did somebody choose to line the drawers of this old dresser with such ugly wallpaper? Who made the decision to paint over the entire window in my bathroom — glass and all? Why did the people who lived here before me own loads of cats but, evidently, not a single vacuum cleaner? We may never know. I know their lives are none of my business, but by leaving behind these relics for me to contend with, they have made it my business. And so, instead of demanding answers that I will never find, I privately curse these individuals and go about correcting their mistakes for them.

One of the most common victims of sloppy tenants and sloppier landlords is old metal hardware. Because it would take an extra five seconds or so to unscrew a doorknob or even just tape around it, that step generally gets passed over in favor of just painting the whole door — including knobs, hinges and existing hooks. The same rule generally applies to window sash locks and — well, let’s be honest — anything in sight.

The good news is that stripping and cleaning old metal hardware is really easy and more or less free! It’s a small project, but these details go a long way toward making your whole space feel clean, polished and fresh. All you need are a few basic supplies (that you might already have), and you’ll be on your way to beautiful hardware that nobody will ever know endured such a traumatic past. — Daniel

More on cleaning vintage metal hardware after the jump . . .


For a doorknob, the first thing you’ll need to do is remove the knob. There should be a small screw at the base of the knob holding it to a central rod that runs through the mortise mechanism inside the door. After the screw is removed, it should be easy to slide off the knob.


Then expose the screws on the backplate. Usually, even with many layers of paint, it’s easy to discern where the screws should be, so I find it’s best to scrape away the paint with an X-Acto knife to expose the head. Then use a manual screwdriver (screws on old hardware usually require a small flathead) to remove the screws. Though it might seem like an electric screwdriver would be faster, electric screwdrivers have a tendency to strip old, stuck screws. Apply pressure, take your time and the screw should come loose easily enough.


After you’ve removed all the screws, pry off the backplates. If you don’t want to re-paint the door when you’re done, use your X-Acto knife to cut into the paint around the backplate so that the plate doesn’t take big chunks of paint with it.

For extra points, remove the mortise inside the door, too. This one was removed at some point and replaced upside down (and, consequently, the backplates were then reinstalled upside down!), so it was extra-important to remove this one and replace it correctly.

When you’re done, sweep up any loose paint on the floor. Older layers of paint may be lead-based, so it’s not a good idea to leave pieces lying around where pets or children might decide to munch on them.


There are many stripping products on the market (such as corrosive paint strippers and heat guns), but all you really need for a project like this is a decent sized old pot. It’s probably not a great idea to prepare food in this pot when you’re done, so I picked this one up at a thrift store for $5. If you think older layers of paint might be lead-based, this project is safer with a lidded crockpot on the middle setting overnight. You can often find old crockpots at thrift stores that work great for projects like this!

Fill the pot with water and a few tablespoons of dish soap (no need to be exact!), and throw your painty hardware and screws in! Cover the pot and keep it on low heat, enough for the water to heat up but not enough to boil. Then just leave it there for several hours. You should be able to see the paint begin to bubble and separate from the hardware within a few hours, but it’s good to let it all marinate for about 6-8. Keep an eye on it while you occupy your time with something more exciting, like staring in the mirror and whispering self-affirming statements to your reflection.


When the hardware has been heated for a while, remove it with tongs directly into a bowl of ice water. I’ve skipped this step in the past, but it does seem to make the paint extra-easy to remove, as well as making the hardware easy to handle immediately.

Then just move over to the sink and start removing your paint! Most of it should come off easily with your fingers and the rough side of a sponge, although paint might still cling to small crevices (like screw holes). I like to keep my X-Acto blade (or a flathead screwdriver, or something rigid and pointy) handy to carefully peel off these difficult parts. Be careful, here — you don’t want to scratch the finish! Or cut off a finger.


After you’ve sponged everything down and removed all the paint, dry it off with a towel, and you could be done! If your hardware is on the newer side, it may be nice to give it a final scrub with a product such as Bar Keeper’s Friend. This stuff is mega-powerful, though, so it’s a good idea to start with the back of a backplate or another area that won’t be exposed, just to make sure you actually like the restored finish. For this knob set, I decided to leave the patina as is instead of trying to restore it to like-new condition.

To protect the finish from tarnishing further — or rusting if it’s going in a bathroom — you may want to hit it with a coat of clear matte varnish. And if it turns out that you totally hate the plain metal, or it just doesn’t look right with your house, you can always repaint it with a nice even coat of spray paint. Black hardware on a white door looks amazing.


Then all that’s left is to reattach it to the door, and you’re done! Now you’ll feel fancy and accomplished, and you can stop hating whatever monster(s) caused this mess in the first place!

Daniel Kanter is a freelance writer and designer who blogs about his home at Manhattan Nest.

  1. Deb says:

    I think most of us can relate to your post WHY??? Why did previous tenants splash bright red paint up the wall and onto the ceiling and then paint over it with one coat of white paint… YES you can still see it and yes it is a problem.
    What you have done is just beautiful and so lovely. I would stop and look at that beautiful door handle.

  2. tory says:

    I was so inspired by this post that I tackled some hardware over the weekend to great success, at least as far as removal from the doors and paint removal. However, one large, heavy, square lock/doorknob combo started rusting immediately, and the other (brass?) bolt locks seem to be as well. Should I have sprayed a coat of matte varnish right away on all the pieces? I was worried about spraying the bolt lock and the bolt not being able to slide, but now the rust is doing that anyway…

    1. Celina says:

      You could spray the mechanisms (or the entire surface of the hardware) with WD-40. That would take care of the sticking mechanisms and would protect the surface of the hardware. (Just wipe off any excess with a paper towel or the like.)

  3. Dave says:

    Great tip, will have to try this. One can also soak tarnished hardware in vinager for a while, and then brighten up its finish with 3/0 steel wool. It gives a better effect than Basso,…which will leave green in your detail areas.

  4. Mike says:

    Great tip. I will try that asap. My grandmother’s house is full of doorknobs just like this.

  5. deb stefanini says:

    this is great for flat surfaces. I’m dealing with old, textured kitchen handles that have been painted over with varnish and if that’s not bad enough, they did NOT prep before painting, so there’s ‘gook’ below the varnish. I want to brink it down to metal (looks like it’s brass over steel) and repaint in black.

  6. Carolina Zhang says:

    Love the tranformation! Who the *$*% paints over hardware!? It never fails to boggle my mind.

  7. Josh says:

    Great article! I like to use a touch of olive oil after as it seems to prolong the period between needing to do a new polish.

  8. Dar says:

    Does anyone know where I can buy replacement screws? My antique (early 1900’s)backplates and doorknobs look similar to what is pictured and I have some closet doors with smaller handles but many of the screws are missing. I have checked at Lowe’s and they do not carry the odd sizes needed. They said to look on line but I haven’t found any websites yet.

  9. Paula A. Nielsen says:

    What if removing the hardware is not an option and it’s small & intricate (e.g., like on a wooden jewelry box I stained with water based stain. I found that removing the hardware causes it to never tighten as it did originally. I need help with this ASAP!

  10. Scott Risner says:

    Here is a similar approach. I put a little video together to explain…
    http://youtu.be/m7nxo4ArYUY

  11. Sue McGrory says:

    Love this pin! I have been doing the same thing (only with a brass brush for tough spots) for many years. Palmolive works best of all dish soaps. If you’re not in a hurry, you can just put it and your hardware covered in water and let it sit for a few days. We are on our fifth house renovation (I really love historic houses), and this has seen me through every single one! And from thrift shop or restoration store purchases.

  12. Old Home Learner says:

    Fantastic. Worked like a charm. I am amazed. Very helpful!

  13. Helen says:

    I am rapidly falling in love with your blog and sense of humour! I live In the UK and recently moved into a council flat circa 1940s completely with original coal cupboard, and built in cupboards in the kitchen and bedroom which have a multitude of pendant handles coated in gloss. I have somehow convinced myself that it would be a good idea too strip the wardrobes (icky yellow/white colour) and find out what’s underneath but was pondering the finishing. I now have my answers! Thank you kindly wish me luck.

  14. Gunnar says:

    Great article, very useful information, and enjoyable comments! We live in a circa 1902 apartment, and all hardware in it was painted over, as was wooden wainscoting. Our back hall to the cellar was never painted, so we can see how woodwork looked in our place over 100 years ago. Our landlord did work in our building some years ago, removing period features left and right. Solid walls replaced paneled pocket doors, which allowed two smaller rooms to become one large room. Diamond paned windows in the dining rooms were replaced with a single pane windows, and fireplace mantles in every apartment were also removed.

    I know this is off topic a bit, but since all of you seem to love old things “as they were” – why do so many people – including antiques dealers – also PAINT old furniture? Why for example, paint a perfectly handsome Victorian oak dining set? Came across a Craig’s List seller the other day – a dealer – who’s selling a bedroom set from the 1930’s, and who has posted before and after photos. What once was beautiful mahogany is now white, “chippy” she calls it. If a piece of furniture is in really bad, irreversible condition, then yes, paint it I suppose, and historically, furniture was sometimes painted, but – a lot of antique/old furniture is being painted needlessly, for a “look”. We are stewards of the past, are we not? How is slathering white paint over old furniture any less thoughtful than over old. beautiful hardware?

  15. Lacie says:

    Thanks for the great idea! Any suggestions on how to strip large metal cabinet doors using this water method?!

  16. Lana says:

    So what if that little screw to get the door knob out has been painted over so many times that you can’t get at it with a screwdriver??

  17. Great tips! The perfect way to add that finishing touch to your interior!

  18. Kari Judd says:

    OUTSTANDING!! Love all the Tips and Information!

  19. anne scott says:

    Terrific Information. Thank you.

  20. Michel Smith says:

    Great tips I will follow these for sure

  21. Lee Kamp says:

    We are working on an old farm house and this is some great info! I have never heard of the ice water step but I’ll have to try it out.

  22. Carolina says:

    Great post. Thanks. I have an old cast iron iron from Turkey that someone painted with silver paint. Looks awful. Would appreciate some advice on how to get it off and the best way to finish the iron afterwards.

  23. Steve says:

    Assuming this can be used on RIM locks……..do you have to dismantle the inside of the lock or can you just put the whole unit in? Does it effect the insides? i.e rusting etc

  24. Debora says:

    The screws holding most of this hardware likely haven’t moved in quite a few decades so they can be easily stripped if you’re not careful. Using your flat head screw driver carefully scrape any paint from the screw head and groove. I like to add a little Liquid Wrench or WD-40 to coax the particularly troublesome screws out. Save all the screws too! They’ll need to be cleaned just like the rest of the hardware.

  25. Sandra Grimm says:

    Amazing transformation! We bought an old house in the woods and I would love to try this trick!

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